The Future of Physical Education after Covid-19

The Covid-19 virus has given me time to think about the future of my beloved teaching subject: Physical Education (PE).

My colleague Lewis Keens recently wrote about the importance of exercise during the lockdown and gave some great tips and strategies for how we can incorporate physical activity into our day. In the UK, the ‘Body coach’ Joe Wicks has become ‘the nation’s PE teacher’ during this time. He is a fantastic role model for both children and adults; enthusiastic and passionate about health, fitness and nutrition. When the schools finally go back will the students ask “Can we please put Joe on the screen?” As PE teachers, are we needed anymore? Is distance/online learning the future of PE? How can we adapt and flourish in the aftermath of months of lockdown?

Physical Education is so much more than just physical activity. Joe Wicks and many other fitness coaches (and PE teachers) are doing a great job at getting our students active in this time of crisis, but participation in exercise (the ‘Physical’ in PE) is only a small part of what we actually teach in PE lessons. This crisis provides us with a good opportunity to sit down (or stand up and walk around!) and think about what the ‘Education’ in PE truly represents. What do we want our students to learn? How does our school PE programme reflect this? How can we play a vital role in society post Covid-19?

The ‘Hidden curriculum’ is something we refer to when asked about the non-physical benefits of physical education. Character values such as grit and resilience are often part and parcel of a good PE curriculum but are not documented or assessed in any way. Angela Duckworth, in her book ‘Grit, the power of passion and perseverance’, summarised years of research, finding ‘grit’ to be a stronger predictor of high-achievement than intelligence, talent and other personality traits. Grit is often developed in physical education when students are challenged out of their comfort zone and they have to find that ‘something inside’ to get them through the situation (Bjork’s “desirable difficulties”). A great example of this is during a strenuous 12 minute run test, can students show grit and determination to push through the increase in lactic acid to gain a new personal best score? This skill can be transferred to real life and other school situations e.g. finding a maths problem difficult to solve, refining scientific procedure to find the best method, redrafting work that isn’t quite as good as it could be, bouncing back from defeat, the list goes on. Does participating in online PE lessons develop grit, resilience and other character values in the same way that a school based PE lesson does?

I am lucky enough to be the father of ten year old twins. They are following a distance learning programme that includes suggestions for PE activities that can be done at home. They luckily have a PE teacher on tap, a garden to utilise, a partner to play (fight!) with and a multitude of play equipment. They perform the online sessions and complete the daily one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity as suggested by the WHO guidelines, but there is something ‘missing’ from the sessions. When I asked my children what they now valued most about their school PE lessons they gave the following responses:

  • Interaction with friends — games
  • Instant feedback on performance from teacher
  • Targets set by the teacher to meet
  • Working with different people
  • Working in different environments: field, hall, pool
  • Teamwork and connection with friends

Most of their responses are social needs and this is where the interactive nature of PE really comes into its own as a subject. Matthew Syed in his book ‘Rebel Ideas’ underlines the importance of diversity, collective problem solving and cooperation; all of which are part of the UNESCO charter for PE & Sport. We need the workforce of tomorrow to solve the complex issues of the world. Designing a vaccine for a virus like Covid-19 will need collective endeavour and will not be the work of one intellectual genius in a laboratory. High quality PE helps our children to acquire these collaborative skills they need to do the jobs that don’t yet exist and solve the problems that face our world. Do our programmes reflect a values driven approach or are they driven by getting the best team out for the weekend fixtures?

Values driven, child centered PE programmes are out there. The Real PE programme developed by the Create Development team in the UK and the health based programme promoted by Ted Temertzoglou in Canada are great examples of a shift in emphasis towards a fundamental skills based approach with cooperative learning at its core. In the book ‘Responsive Teaching’ Harry Fletcher-Wood underlines the importance for teachers to understand the cognitive science of learning for our students to gain confidence and self efficacy. In PE, our students need to develop a number of fundamental movement skills in order to move onto the next stage of learning (application to new/unfamiliar situations). This schema of fundamental skills needs to be ‘banked’ in the long term memory of the student allowing the PE teacher to then plan for deliberate practice (Ericsson, ‘Peak, the Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’) to further embed the skills. Our best sports students are capable of this, but how many in a class are not capable? Do we put our students into situations where they will automatically fail? We need our students to develop their fundamental skills at their own level. This in turn improves confidence and self efficacy as well as enjoying and developing a love for the subject.

Implementing a child centered programme with a focus on fundamental movement skills often requires a shift in the mindset of practitioners. PE teachers are strong sportspeople, passionate about their subject and they love what they do. It is natural for them to gravitate towards the students that mirror those beliefs and values. What about those students who don’t mirror those values?

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As PE teachers what do we value the most and what is actually best for the majority of students we teach, and not just the ‘sporty’ ones? If engaging students in the WHO guidelines is a priority then a health and fitness based model may be the answer. This is something that has been addressed by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These countries have developed their PE curriculum to reflect national health trends; increasing levels of obesity, diabetes and heart related diseases, high level of sedentary lifestyles and poor diets. All of which can be alleviated with increased levels of physical activity and diet/nutrition education. Is this the universal approach we should use?

Has anybody asked the students what they want to learn in PE lessons? In reality, asking the students at the start of a year what they want from their physical education lessons rarely happens. It is time consuming, doesn’t fit into nice neat boxes and is staff intensive. Timetabling is hard and group lists don’t even exist as they change with student choice in every unit. Programmes are also dictated by facilities and therefore an activity or sport based model ‘fits’ better. This format helps with organisation and allocating teacher timetables but are we planning our programmes with our teachers in mind or the students? In his book ‘Why students don’t like school’, Daniel Willingham states:

“Experience means you are simply engaged in the activity. Practice means you are trying to improve performance”.

Think about this statement and reflect upon your classes and PE programme. Are the students just engaged or are they learning to improve?

If you were to ask a 6 year old what they wanted to be when they grew up, they might say ‘Spiderman’ or ‘Wonder Woman’. They want to be a superhero who can save the world. The book ‘Natural Born Heroes’ by Christopher McDougal talks extensively about “Être fort pour être utile” (“Being strong to be useful”). If we are wanting our students to be true global citizens capable of making a difference in the world (being superheroes) how can we teach them the skills they need? In the event of a natural disaster we want citizens who climb over obstacles quickly, solve problems in the moment, carry the wounded to safety, swim long distances to safety, save lives using first aid skills, be creative to make shelter and collaborate with fellow survivors. These skills (and many others) and positive character strengths can be developed in a PE environment with a positive role model facilitating the learning.

The essential component in all of this is the PE teacher. John Hattie, author of Visible Learning, outlines the importance of ‘connection’ between student and teacher to enable learning to take place. The lack of direct interaction during the Covid-19 crisis has significantly emphasised how valuable this connection is. Getting to know each and every child, making them feel safe, valued and achieving success at their own level is an extremely powerful learning tool. As PE teachers we have an amazing opportunity and responsibility to create the new generation of superheroes, providing them with their toolkit of weapons (‘useful’ transferable skills) that can be utilised across a range of situations. Can online PE lessons deliver this? No, but if we don’t up our game, Joe Wicks might be taking our place…

Follow Alan on Twitter @ARJDunstan